Staff, patients say goodbye to AMC’s emergency room

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

At about 5:30 a.m. Friday, the final patient to use Atlanta Medical Center’s emergency room walked out into downtown’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood and turned onto Boulevard. At 7 a.m., staff locked the doors.

A century of taking in patients had ended.

Hospital employees who weren’t even scheduled to work drove in to watch it happen, and found to their surprise that other co-workers had, too. Even past employees showed up.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The president of AMC’s medical staff, Dr. Mark Waterman, was there. As workers ending a 12-hour overnight shift came outside in their scrubs and uniforms, they formed an impromptu goodbye ceremony. Waterman addressed them, thanking them for their service.

They shared memories, especially of the impact they have had fighting the pandemic.

“It was pretty emotional,” Waterman said afterward. Waterman has worked there for 39 years, since the beginning of emergency medicine as a specialty.

“It’s larger than an individual,” he said. “We represent the thousands of people that have passed through those doors, both employees patients; the heartache that came from that place and also the good things we created.”

“We did good,” he said. “As I kept telling people, we did good over the years.”

After Waterman’s address, security officers blocked the driveway with signs that read “Emergency Department Closed.”

With the setting moon overhead, the nurses, doctors, technicians, cafeteria workers and maintenance men milled around on the pavement outside the glass entryway. They took selfies and group photos, hugged and wept.

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Bob Zovlonsky, a cardiovascular technician just finishing a shift said of the closing, “I really hate what it’s going to do to this community.”

The hospital will continue operating until its final closure on Nov. 1. AMC is approved for 460 beds, but recently only about 200 beds have been staffed with nurses. Many of AMC’s patients are less affluent than patients at other hospitals, with many lacking insurance, according to documents filed with the state and federal governments by Wellstar and other health systems. Finding new caregivers and medical facilities for those patients will be a challenge.

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The emergency room itself saw about 110 patients a day and was the heart of the hospital, the source of about 70% of the hospital’s inpatients. It was also one of only two Level 1 trauma centers in metro Atlanta, able to treat the most serious injuries and wounds.

That was the problem with AMC, according to hospital owner Wellstar Health System. Wellstar said it sustained financial losses for years running AMC, with too many uninsured patients, too many patients using the ER as a clinic, and not enough paying patients seeking out the hospital to get lucrative procedures.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Zovlonsky said he has worked at AMC for 21 years. Like other AMC health workers, Wellstar gave Zovlonsky one take-it-or-leave-it option to keep a job with Wellstar. His offer was at a hospital in LaGrange, 80 miles from his home.

He lives in McDonough but every day Zovlonsky has driven past Piedmont Henry Hospital in order to come work at AMC. “I could have worked there, but I continued to work here because I like serving this community,” he said.